The art of anxiety

Matthew Perry, Chandler Bing, Egon Schiele and me

If you squint, Egon Shiles seated naked man (self portrait) (1910) looks a bit like Matthew Perry. Shock brown hair, thin build, sarcastic raised eyebrows. A week after Perry’s death, I noticed this on Instagram, when reel after reel of two images were stitched together: a shot of Chandler Bing on Friends followed by an excerpt from a Schiele video from The Art Hole. I had a framed poster Seated male nude in my university bedroom, next to a Friends boxet I would compulsively watch as I was flooded with intrusive thoughts from undiagnosed OCD. When I look at these two bodies nearly a century apart, I see two manifestations of hegemonic masculinity, what Toby Miller in his 2002 book Sports section defines as Western European and North American white male sexuality [which is] isomorphic with power. This patriarchal philosophy presented me with an incredibly narrow view of what the ideal male form should look like: broad chest, well-defined abs, and visible biceps to boot. In retrospect, everything from the coming apocalypse that would leave me in misery and running for my life, to my constant attempts to get a six pack, seems to be epitomized by these two figures, Chandler and the seated man. The choppy lines remind me of trembling, worried hands after a panic attack, and I see my bursts of intense exercise followed by a collapse reflected in the way Paris’s weight changes over ten years on screen. Paris’s recent death and the Instagram algorithm rediscovering Shiles’ work in my consciousness brought me back to wrestling with male anxieties about the body, power, control, and why, as a society, we view men this way.

Egon Schiele, seated naked man (self portrait)1910

In sitting naked man painted by 20-year-old Šile, there is no chair in the background. Skinny-hipped figures float in space, as if an unsympathetic personal trainer has pushed him into a squat and made him hold until his glutes scream. His hip bones are sticking out, his ribs are exposed. This figure would fail to adhere to the twenty-first century rules of hegemonic masculinity, where the body must be powerful, the muscles large, the chest and abs shiny in definition. Gender markers are elusive and indeterminate: Shiles shading around the chest creates a chest-like curvature; the mouth and chin are blurred to prevent clear delineation of soft or hard facial features; even the genitalia are poorly defined beneath the clumps of pubic hair. Culture, narrative arts, and misguided PE teachers honored and rewarded certain body shapes while heaping shame and failure on others. Looking at this picture on Instagram, surrounded by fitness influencers and Marvel superheroes, blushing with anxiety. I feel that the body Schiele painted, twisting into various poses in front of the mirror, is my body: a small, fragile thing that fails to achieve the physical or moral integrity expected of true manhood.

He portrayed a version of this bodily anxiety crudely Friends writers as a reaction to Paris’s dramatic weight fluctuations, caused by his struggle with substance abuse. In his memoirs Friends, lovers and the big scary thing (2022), Perry described how the nature of his addiction can be portrayed throughout the show: When I’m heavy, it’s alcohol; when i’m thin, his pills. Two early episodes show the concerns of both actor and character. In the second season, Chandler worries about his weight gain. When Monica offers to work out with him, he agrees, then adds, but if I put spandex on and my breasts are bigger than yours, I’m going home. A season later, Perry is emaciated, swallowed by the coat he wears, and now the plot revolves around his character giving up smoking, which is now a dramatically ironic nod to his struggles. In a later interview with ABC, Perry reflected on his weight loss in Friends: I was 155 pounds, going for 123 that’s a guy who’s out of control, going through too much. We see the concerns of the actor and the character collapsing into each other. Both cases reveal a preoccupation with looking fit, and more importantly, whether underweight or overweight, a commitment to never appearing vulnerable or out of control. Men today still feel that they must adhere to those principles of hegemonic masculinity that are isomorphic with power and that this should be represented in their bodies. Moreover, men experience a kind of meta-shame: they are told not to be vain like women, that the fixation on shape and appearance is to be laughed at (as Perry must via Chandler in Friends). So people suffer, but they can’t admit it, society doesn’t validate this suffering, and so a closed loop of anxiety starts.

Matthew Perry d Boys will be boys1988. Courtesy of Wikimedia

In my twenties, when everyone else supposedly felt indestructible, I was convinced I was going to die. Sometimes I believed my body was too big: a flabby stomach, a wobbly double chin. Sometimes I thought it was too small skinny arms and visible ribs. In both of these bodies embodied by Perry and Sheila, I saw a vulnerability to death, illness, and at its most extreme, an inability to escape the apocalyptic scenarios I was anxiously convinced would come to pass. Exercising compulsively and striving for that ideal, matrix male form of broad chests, well-defined abs, visible biceps was my way of trying to defy death. But that ideal is unattainable. It depends on the belief that we should constantly strive for a body type that is not only impossible within the framework of life’s other obligations, not only temporary and changeable within a few weeks, but also imaginary. The ideal male form is an imagined combination of a set of contradictory traits that no one could ever possess. The point, then, is not the core muscles that hold you up while you run, not the biceps that can lift boxes or fall behind punches in the face of conflict: the point is the power they represent. For a twenty-first century man, to be out of control, as Perry says, is to be pitied, feared, shunned. Exercise, diet and constant analysis and management of our bodies are how we are taught to keep them under control. That’s why I still look at those bodies: I see the pain in Perry and Schiele that resonates with me. And when I see that anxiety reflected, I want to overcome it to find salvation for my ever-fluctuating, five-a-side, fitness-chasing, anxiety-ridden, now-30-year-old body. I look at Perry and Schiele and still recognize that there is a spectrum of bodies. This helps me find a way to ignore the shouts of the patriarchy’s personal trainer, to know that this body will survive, floating peacefully and undisturbed in space.

Lewis Buxton is a writer whose first book, Boy in various poseswas published in 2021.


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